238. ‘Massachusetts (The Lights Went Out In)’, by The Bee Gees

A couple of posts ago, as I wrote about Scott McKenzie’s ‘San Francisco’, I made a big deal about #1 hits that reference places, and how uncommon they were. Of course, just to prove me wrong, the charts now throw up a song about Massachusetts.

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Massachusetts (The Lights Went Out In), by The Bee Gees (their 1st of five #1s)

4 weeks, from 11th October – 8th November 1967

And that’s not all that this next chart-topper has in common with McKenzie’s hit. It also, you know, sounds a lot like it. The same light guitar and the same chimes. The same chilled-out vibes. It even references San Fran in the second verse. It’s the (Indian) Summer of Love! Is it harsh to suggest that The Bee Gees were simply jumping on the hippy bandwagon?

Actually, yeah, it would be harsh. This is a retort to songs like ‘San Francisco’. It’s being sung from the point of view of someone who has left his home, in Massachusetts, to join in the summer’s festivities, and who now feels a bit homesick. Feel I’m going back to Massachusetts, Something’s telling me, I must go home… He left his girl standing alone, as the lights all went down in Massachusetts… But he’s now seen the error of his ways: They brought me back, To see my way with you…

It’s an interesting concept, and a quick piece of song writing to get the record out and in the charts mere weeks after the hits that it references. It turns what I initially felt was a so-so, slightly bland song into one worthy of note. The lights are going down in Massachusetts because everybody’s buggering off to the West Coast! I will remember Massachusetts… I wonder if the Massachusetts Tourist Board have ever used it in an ad campaign?

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Moving on – largely because ‘Massachusetts’ is a really difficult word to keep typing – let’s take a look at the band. The debutants atop the UK Singles Chart. The Bee Gees. You know, the band that in a decade’s time will take disco to the masses. I think that’s the ‘Bee Gees’ that most people think of: jumpsuits and sparkles and you should be dancing… It’s there in this record, mainly in the vocal harmonies that tremble a little higher than your regular pop record. (Though Robin Gibb sang lead on this one, while Barry sang falsetto on most of their seventies hits.)

They’re a fascinating band, actually. They will spread their five chart-toppers over exactly twenty years, covering three completely different versions of themselves, in terms of sound and image. But they’re not a band I’ve ever really been able to love, and I wish I could like their debut #1 more than I do… (Personally I think their final #1 is by far the best of the five.)

Anyway, they will be back soon enough. In between this and their next #1, they will release ‘Words’, which I can look on fondly as one of the first songs I ever learned to play on keyboard. Other interesting, and less self-revolving, bits of trivia about sixties-era Bee Gees include the fact that none of them had ever actually been to Massachusetts – they just liked the sound of it, and the fact that it was about as far away from San Francisco as you can get on the continental USA. (The Bee Gees, of course, weren’t American – they’re British/Australian.) And… I really like this one… ‘Massachusetts’ was the first ever non-Japanese #1 single on the Japanese charts! How about that…

236. ‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)’, by Scott McKenzie

And so we reach the final part of our Summer of Love trilogy. Three songs. Thirteen weeks. One summer that (kind of) changed the world. The psychedelic weirdness of Procol Harum, The Beatles going for a full-on hippy love-in, and now this. An ode to the city where it all started.

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San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair), by Scott McKenzie (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 9th August – 6th September 1967

If you’re going, To San Francisco, Be sure to wear, Some flowers in your hair… The music is acoustic: folky and wistful… Very 1965 – already sounding a little old-fashioned in mid-’67. Something’s going ‘ting’. Somebody’s clapping their hands. In the streets, Of San Francisco, Gentle people, With flowers in their hair… (Apparently all the references to ‘flowers’ and ‘gentle people’ were added to make hippies sound less frightening!)

The singer, Scott McKenzie, also sounds as if he’s from another time, a little old-fashioned. Kind of clipped and proper. A bit square, if we’re being honest, like he’s chronicling the scenes in the parks of San Francisco, an observer rather than a partaker. I dunno, I’m left slightly underwhelmed. For the ‘unofficial anthem of the flower-power movement’ I’d have expected something a little more revolutionary…

But, you know, it’s a cute song. I like it. I knew it, as most people do, as a chorus in the back of my mind. And the most interesting bit comes in the middle-eight, when McKenzie breaks the fourth wall and explicitly references the counter-culture movement: All across the nation, Such a strange vibration, People in motion… There’s a whole generation, With a new explanation… The beat here is spikier, more urgent. It sounds almost like a rallying call.

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I’ve been to San Francisco twice. Once as a kid, and once just last summer. When one night, in the heart of downtown, a guy walked past us bellowing this very song out at the top of his lungs. San Fran being San Fran, he wasn’t oddest oddball we’d seen that day, or even that evening. But I liked the fact that the song was still there, still an anthem of the city fifty years on. And there is something about San Francisco, still, even if downtown is full of meth addicts and Haight-Ashbury is now a bit of a tourist trap. Something in the air that suggests that it could start a revolution again, if it wanted to…

I’m still not sure if Scott McKenzie himself was much of a hippy. He had quite long hair, but then everybody did in the sixties… What I do know is that he is a near perfect example of a one-hit wonder: his only other charting single in the UK reached #50. He was something of a journeyman singer-songwriter, even in 1967, having been in doo-wop and folk bands since the start of the decade. Post ‘San Francisco’, he performed with The Mamas and the Papas, and co-wrote The Beach Boys’ eighties hit ‘Kokomo’. He passed away in 2012.

So that’s that for the Summer of Love. Three game-changing #1 singles: one timeless, one crazy, and one pretty nice. Up next, we slip right back into the easy-listening mulch that has made up so much of 1967. But let’s not think about that just yet. Let’s focus instead on the fact that this is only the 3rd chart-topper to reference a city, after Jimmy Young’s ‘The Man From Laramie’ in 1955, and Winifred Atwell’s ‘The Poor People of Paris’ back in 1956. If we extend that to ‘places’, we could include The Song from ‘Moulin Rouge’, and, at a bit of a push, ‘The Garden of Eden’… Worth noting, though, as it’s not a common topic for #1 hits…

My Spotify playlist, for your pleasure:

235. ‘All You Need Is Love’, by The Beatles

The top of the British Singles Chart has just endured its longest Beatles-less spell (at least, you know, until they split up and stop making music) but they are back! Though you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a completely different band.

The Fab Four were killed off a year or so ago. Since then they’ve hit #1 with the string drenched ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and the kids’ singalong ‘Yellow Submarine’. Before that came the bass-heavy garage of ‘Paperback Writer’. Both big steps away from the Beat sound that had made them huge. This single is another massive leap away, even compared to their innovation of ’66. This single opens with the French national anthem…

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All You Need Is Love, by The Beatles (their 12th of seventeen #1s)

3 weeks, from 19th July – 9th August 1967

Because, why not? They’re The Beatles and they can do whatever the hell they want. ‘La Marseillaise’ doesn’t last for long, and soon we swing into a simple ditty. Love, love, love… and a mantra. Nothing you can do that can’t be done, Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung… On first listen it sounds like a hippy-dippy, peace (man!) anthem for the Summer of Love. But, actually… Nothing you can know that isn’t known, Nothing you can see that isn’t shown… It’s kind of negative. ‘Why bother?’ seems to be the message…

John Lennon allegedly kept the lyrics simple, as the song was to be debuted on TV screens around the globe for ‘Our World’, the first ever global tele-link. But, Lennon being Lennon, I sense a bit of needle in there. A bit of sarcasm, maybe? It’s definitely not as straightforward as it sounds. He later described the lyrics as ‘revolutionary propaganda.’ The chorus, though, is simplicity in action: All you need is love… Love is all you need.

Like ‘Good Vibrations’ – a record that spurred The Beatles on to greater experimentation – ‘All You Need Is Love’ jumps around all over the place, from national anthems, to drunken jazz in the chorus, to an electric guitar solo, to stabbing strings, with some music-hall ‘All together nows’ for good measure.

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And then there’s the finale. Where it all just goes a little bit mental. We get horns from Bach (meaning the 18th Century composer has influenced two #1s in a row!), a snippet of Glen Miller’s ‘In the Mood’ and, naturally, ‘Greensleeves’. From revolutionary France, to WWII mess-halls, to Tudor England in one four minute pop song… And there are snatches of two other Beatles’ classics as well: ‘Yesterday’ and ‘She Loves You’. (Opening up an interesting sub-category: #1 singles that feature in other #1 singles…) All the while the band and guests whoop and holler until the whole messy shebang fades from sight. It sounds like the best party you’ve never been to.

Where to start analysing this? Why even bother? I certainly don’t feel qualified to go into any more detail. With other bands, and other singles, you can see where they were coming from, what they were trying to do, even how you might have done it better. Not with this song, not with The Beatles. It’s unthinkable, really. Throwing out singles that most bands would have built whole careers around, willy-nilly. Here’s ‘She Loves You’, there’s ‘Help!’, watch you don’t trip over ‘Eleanor Rigby’, or ‘Ticket to Ride’ over there in the corner… You’d like a song for a lame TV show? Here’s ‘All You Need Is Love’. And ‘Yesterday’, the song that they reference here – the song that has been covered over 2000 times, the song that has been voted ‘Best Song Ever’ on several occasions? They stuck that away on Side 2 of an album. Oh, The Beatles… Beatles, Beatles, Beatles…

But, just so that they don’t go getting too big-headed, too full of themselves – Paul and Ringo definitely read this blog, right? – I feel compelled to add that when they next appear in this countdown, it’ll be with what I personally think is the worst of their seventeen chart-toppers…

234. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, by Procol Harum

And so we reach the summer of 1967, which you might also have heard of as The Summer of Love. Flower power. Tie-dye. Making love not war. (I dunno, really – I’m just hitting all the clichés.) If you can remember it, man, you weren’t really there…

Despite Britain being thousands of miles away from the pot-haze of Haight-Ashbury, somehow the singles chart managed to reflect, in real time, this cultural movement, with three heavyweight #1s between early June and early September. The first being this next one…

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A Whiter Shade of Pale, by Procol Harum (their 1st and only #1)

6 weeks, from 8th June – 19th July 1967

It’s a record that strides confidently into the room, with an unmistakeable organ riff and Spector-esque drums. (Apparently it owes a debt to J. S. Bach, this intro… I wouldn’t know much about that. I would simply describe it as ‘soaring.’) It’s rock, it’s progressive, it’s classical, it’s psychedelic… It’s everything and nothing. It just is.

It reminds me a little of The Moody Blues’ ‘Go Now!’, from a couple of years back, in its proggy, jazzy take on pop music. But not really. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ is unique. It doesn’t really sound like the logical next step in the evolution of pop; more like a record that has arrived, nobody knows how or from where, to dominate until normal service resumes.

As much as it stands out musically, what has made this such a famous record are the lyrics. Just what on earth are they about? We skipped the light fandango, Turned cartwheels cross the floor… The first verse, at a push, can be seen as someone drunk at a party. The room was humming harder, As the waiter brought a tray… But surely a song this renowned can’t just be about getting pissed at a party, turning white, and chucking up?

Well, no. We’ve not got to the Chaucer-referencing chorus yet. Or the second verse… I wandered through my playing cards, And would not let her be, One of sixteen vestal virgins… Uh-huh… ‘Vestal virgins’ being a select group of young women locked away inside a temple in ancient Rome to tend an eternal flame (my undergrad degree in History not going to waste there…) I mean, I don’t want this post to go on forever and so I’ll spare you my interpretation of the lyrics. They are, what they are: pretty far out, man.

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Plus, boring lyrical analyses will just take away from the fact that this is a superb song – up there with earlier bizarro classics like ‘Telstar’ and ‘Good Vibrations’. A song that’s clever without being alienating, and weird without being off-putting. It’s a long song, at over four minutes, and oddly structured to boot – the two verses and two choruses sandwiched between long stretches of organ instrumental. I love the sweep of the organ every time the chorus begins, and the fact that it fades just seconds after the final, triumphant chorus begins. I love that there is a third and fourth verse that the band only play live. I love that they are called Procol Harum, after the ‘cat fancy’ name for their producer’s Burmese cat (I don’t even understand the reason behind the band’s name; let alone the name itself!)

Above all, I love that we’ve finally broken the cheesy, easy-listening slump that 1967 has brought to the charts. For the next three chart-toppers, at least, we’re back innovating, pushing the envelope of pop. Procol Harum, for all the brilliance of their debut hit, wouldn’t bother the singles charts too much afterwards. Their follow-up, ‘Homburg’, did hit #6 though, and is actually the first Harum song I ever heard, as it featured on the sixties compilation tape in my parents’ car that I must have mentioned twenty times by now. I guess the compilers couldn’t afford ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’.

Anyway, I’m sure you are in no doubt about the brilliance of this record, but just to make sure… It was announced in 2004 that it was the record with the most radio/TV plays of the previous seventy years. It has sold more than ten million copies worldwide. Over one thousand cover-versions have been recorded… No doubt about it – ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ is pop royalty.

My hand-made Spotify playlist: